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Crucial Conversations QA

Finding Fault with the Facts

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Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

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Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

When I’m having a conversation with my wife, we often disagree on the “facts.” One of us invariably says we don’t remember or we weren’t aware of a previous conversation in which one of us told the other something of importance. What do you do when two people dispute the “facts”?

Disputing the Facts

A Dear Disputing the Facts,

Your question reminds me of a story that has circulated for years. It goes like this:

A husband goes to the doctor for a physical and after it’s done, he says, “Thanks Doc. Can I ask a question about my wife’s hearing?”

The doctor says, “Sure.”

The husband says, “I think she’s going deaf. How can I tell?”

The doctor tells him how to diagnose whether or not she is going deaf and the husband goes home to test her. When he gets home, his wife is doing dishes in the kitchen with her back turned. The husband stands twenty feet away and asks, “Darling, can you hear me?” No response. He moves ten feet closer and asks again. No response. He then stands right behind her and asks again, “Darling can you hear me?”

And the wife says, “For the third time, what?”

Here are a few things we can all learn from this story:

  • As we get older, some of our skills may diminish.
  • Sometimes, we are the root of the problem, even if we don’t see it or hear it.
  • It takes at least two to have interpersonal problems.

I started with this little anecdote because the issue between you and your wife—and between any two people—has some commonalities with the story. I suggest you take the following steps to improve communication with your wife:

Step 1: Get your motive right before you open your mouth. Each of you has to begin by working on yourself first. We’ve found in our research that when we use our best skills first, we find it easier to dialogue with another person—regardless of how skillful or emotional that person is.

In your case, the first clue you should note is that you and your wife are debating or arguing. The motive or purpose for a debate or an argument is to win. When you want to win, you can play all kinds of verbal games. For example, you can argue about what a fact is. You can argue about whether or not a fact is relevant to the discussion. You can stack the deck. You can belittle others’ facts. And so on.

Instead of debating facts, clarify that what you want is to understand, learn, share, and find the best resolution while maintaining respect. Such a motive will help you dialogue instead of debate. When you get your motive right, you can roll out the effective skills you already have. These include listening, asking questions to clarify, and summarizing so you demonstrate that you understand and that you are trying to understand. When you do this, you begin conversing instead of disputing.

Step 2: Agree on how you’ll talk together. You need to make two agreements. First, you need to agree about how you engage in a dialogue. If the two of you agree on several ground rules, you will make it safe to talk. For example, you might say that you’ll have your conversations at times when neither of you is stressed or tired. You’ll find a place that is private and free of distraction like the television, computers, or cell phones. And you’ll use your best skills such as listening, sharing, and maintaining respect.

The second agreement you need to make is to call a time out. If the conversation becomes combative, argumentative, emotional, or if you’re just plain stuck, call a time out and take a five-minute break then start again with a renewed commitment to use your best skills. Once a conversation gets emotional, you can get caught up in the rush of the adrenaline or in the certainty that you’re right and that it’s your turn to win. After your break, begin again by clarifying Mutual Purpose. Take turns asking, “What is your goal?” then ask, “What is our goal? What is the purpose of this dialogue?” When you clarify Mutual Purpose, you are less likely to use tactics that further selfish or opposing purposes.

Step 3: Record important decisions. I’ve saved this bit of advice for last, because it is less necessary if you follow steps 1 and 2. At the heart of your ongoing debate is this: either you have opposing purposes and you’re trying to use facts to help you win; or you can’t remember what the facts are. To overcome this problem, we suggest that people record important decisions—particularly at the end of a conversation when they decide who does what by when and how to follow-up. Why is this important? Memory is unsafe. Memory can be unreliable. Memory can diminish in the rush of other urgencies and deadlines. So write down the facts. What commitments were made? What decisions were made?

I realize that asking a couple to do this may sound like overkill. However, if the reason you dispute the facts is that you can’t remember them or that you have “twisted” them to fit your personal purpose, then you need a record that is more reliable than memory. I have qualified my recommendation of this step as an action that you’d take only if needed. However, if your dispute continues after you’ve done the first two steps, you should consider it. A little note e-mailed or texted between you and your spouse could go a long way toward moving you from debate to dialogue.

More than a few times in my life, I’ve discovered belatedly that I’ve been part of the problem. I’ve also discovered that when I get my motives right and use my best skills, I can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. And I’ve discovered that I often have to step out of the content of the conversation and get agreements about how we’ll talk. This helps clarify expectations, helps make it safe to talk about tough issues, and it helps me use my best skills. I hope this advice can help you too.

Best wishes,
Al

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Al Switzler

Al Switzler is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, Al has delivered engaging keynotes for an impressive list of clientele including AT&T, Xerox, IBM, and Sprint. Al’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

11 thoughts on “Finding Fault with the Facts”

  1. The deaf story reminds me of an ongoing problem I have with my wife. We’ve been married about a year. As I near 50, my hearing has diminished a little bit. She is very soft talker, especially when she’s in a bad mood or in an uncomfortable situation. We’ve been in numerous public situations where else listening had to ask her to repeat what she just said, so I’ve had external confirmation that she’s a soft talker.

    So…. When she gets into a soft-talking mode and I ask her to repeat what she just said, she invariably complains that I’m not listening. As you wrote, it takes two!

  2. Great topic! I recently have discovered that as an introvert it is in my nature to remember everything whereas my husband, an extrovert after having a conversation quickly forgets the details. It was by reading a book by Marti Laney “The Introvert and Extrovert in Love: Making It Work When Opposites Attract” in addition to Crucial Conversations that I came to understand and rcognize this important fact about our interactions. The key is to revisit important conversations over time to ensure that we are both on the same page still.

  3. Al,

    I really appreciate what you’re saying. However, I think we should carefully clarify the statement that “it takes two to have interpersonal problems.” Misapplied, that phrase can get us in big trouble–especially within the crucial conversations model.

    “It takes two” can sound like “both of you are always to blame.” Beware–that thought can be a self-destructive guilt trap, and I don’t think you mean that.

    In some situations the only options are 1) severe ongoing interpersonal problems or 2) withdrawal. And there’s the rub. In Crucial Conversations, withdrawal usually signals “going to silence,” which prevents positive teamwork and stops information flow into the pool of shared knowledge. But sometimes it is essential!

    Examples: if the other person has a mutually-destructive compulsive disorder or psychological issue (which can be hard for a non-professional to spot), or when abuse is taking place and the abuser has no apparent motivation to change (also hard to spot if the abuse is emotional and the recipient is uninformed). In these cases, personal safety has to come first! Setting appropriate boundaries is essential. Withdrawing may finally prove to be the only option. In fact, done right, appropriate boundaries/withdrawing may be the only way that to encourage change in the other party.

    Although these situations are extreme, they are more common than we may realize.

    So, I think we should be careful about saying “it takes two to have interpersonal problems.” Let’s remember that it really means: “it’s your responsibility to DO something about it” instead of being an assertion of blame. Look inside first, get your motive right, try to agree on ground rules, but if that fails and your physical or emotional safety is at risk, keep taking action: get help in setting appropriate, enforceable boundaries, and withdraw if/when necessary.

  4. #1, go to an audiologist and get your hearing checked, and hearing aids if necessary. For all you know, others who ask your wife to repeat are also hard of hearing. Furthermore, you know that she gets soft when she gets upset. That isn’t going to change, so you need to be sure that you hear her. Many a marriage has broken up because the hard of hearing one refuses to get hearing aids.

    Both my husband and I have memory issues due to autoimmune disease, leaving us with spotty memories. Instead of getting angry about something the other person forgot, or, in my case, misunderstood because of my hearing loss, we just review the plans for the day or whatever. What is, is. We just deal with it.

    Part of the key is to realize, admit and understand the deficiency you have, and any deficiency the other person has. And this is very, very hard. It requires you to accept the perception of the other person about your hearing, memory, or whatever as correct. Then it requires that you admit and understand the deficiency, and that you do what you can about it, if anything can be done. Get the hearing aids and learn to use them. Carry a little notebook and write things down in it if your memory is the problem. See a therapist if warranted. Obviously, the other person has to go through the same process.

    As we get older, disability happens. Deal with it, be grateful that you can, and remember the alternative to getting older: death.

  5. Can you speak to how to handle a boss who literally seems to forget what she has instructed her subordinates to do? Several of us can be in the same meeting, participating in the conversation and days later she will insist that she did not say something, or that her instructions were different from what we all heard. I personally think it is related to the high stress level we are all experiencing in our rapidly changing healthcare environment as well as her habit of not being fully attentive to the discussions, but short of having her sign off (literally!) on everything she asks us to do we’re not sure how to handle this is in a manner that is respectful to her and useful to the rest of us.

  6. Kathy, you could take notes such as that on April 3, 2012 Boss Lady said that we had to increase widget production to 100 annually. If employees 1, 2 and 3 all have the same notes it demonstrates where the memory problem is. IN A BIG WAY. I, who like to think of herself as a kind and normal person, would be horribly embarassed to learn this so be very gentle when demonstrating this. And yes stress shoves informaiton right out of your memory!

  7. excellent advise… i could actually ‘ see’ our family debates and the advise unlocking the road to harmony for us… thank you… the only thing one could perhaps add conciously is the tool of ABC. agree, build and compare. ; crucial conversations.

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